Remember iPhone, it’s worth it

At this year’s MacWorld, the annual Apple lovefest, company CEO Steve Jobs announced “three new products … a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone and a breakthrough Internet communications device”. It was his inimitable way of unveiling one product, the iPhone.

When we look back at this notch on the timeline of technology history, I bet it’ll be much more than just a smart phone announcement. Even though it may not be apparent now, it’s the start of the age of the pocket-sized laptop. Really.

First, let’s look at what the iPhone is and then I’ll tell you why it’s destined to be much more than what it appears.

The iPhone is what the telecom industry calls a smart phone. That’s basically the merger of a cellular phone and personal digital assistant or PDA. “Smart” comes from the computer in the phone that drives it all.

Jaded gadget fans may point out that devices from Nokia, RIM, Palm and Motorola already offer most of the “smart” features that Apple promises for the iPhone.

Those four companies offer mobile browsers, push e-mail and mobile Internet connections on their devices. They have installed multimedia players on their devices. Palm has had touch screens since the mid 1990s.

The problem is these combined features that don’t always add up to make easy-to-use devices.

In the pre-iPhone era, smart phones have been hard to use. They have tiny keyboards, itty-bitty screens and lackluster web browsers. For Apple, those are all design opportunities.

Now, no one outside the development team, the debut telecom carrier AT&T Wireless and Steve Jobs’ circle of dinner-party friends have touched an iPhone, so it’s hard to tell yet if the iPhone will live up to its hype. But from what we have been allowed to see so far, the iPhone looks promising.

Apple’s genius here, as you might expect, is its interface. Apple may have roots as a computer company, but it’s really an interface company. All you have to do is look at its mouse-driven Macintosh operating system and then the nav-wheel on the iPod. When you pair that with a massively successful and “” ignoring the digital rights management issues “” seamless on-line music store, Apple has twice wowed the world with its human-machine interfaces.

The iPhone innovation is in interface, too. There is no keyboard on the iPhone. Instead, Apple designed a finger-driven touch screen. You navigate programs by touching the 3.5 inch display. Data is entered on a tap-type virtual keyboard summoned on-screen as needed. And as you would expect, it’s all swishy and zippy when you touch it. Touch elements to choose from on the interface and it rolls and then slows to a stop like the big wheel in Price is Right.

The iPhone is as much computer as it is phone. It runs a modified Mac OS X operating system. And its 4.5 x 2.4 x 0.46 inch (115 x 61 x 11.6 mm) case contains some clever technology. Sensors toggle the screen between landscape and portrait, depending on how you hold it. The screens also powers down when it’s at your ear for a call. The iPhone connects to the Internet via a wireless hotspot (typically used by laptops) or on existing GSM mobile data networks. Best of all, it’s a next generation iPod with 4 GB or 8 GB of storage space.

Its likely Achilles heel is one or more of these problems:

  • Battery life;

  • durability;

  • intermittent and sluggish GSM mobile cellular data connectivity.

If Apple can overcome these, it could have a hit on its hands.

The other problem with the iPhone is its price. Apple has priced it at $499 (U.S.) to $599 (or about $550 to $660 Canadian). You read that right: $660 for a phone. It’s a no-brainer for the Apple geeks. They follow the Cupertino, California, company with their wallets and a cult-like devotion.

By the time the iPhone hits second generation, your grandma and other iPod owners may dump their beloved Apple music players in favour of an iPhone. You may see a phone when you look at the iPhone, but without its cellular guts, it’s a new design for a pocket computer that’s more like a smart iPod, than smart phone, but with the processing power and operating system of a personal mobile computer.

To me, that’s where this is headed. Add a roll-out screen – made possible in the next few years by OLED – or electronic-ink display technology, and the iPhone is the prototype for a fully-fledged pocket laptop that is good on the go and hooks up to keyboard, mouse and screen when you get to your desk.

Don’t believe me? Then look at OQO, a Silicon Valley computer company that already makes pager-sized Windows Vista computers. Have look at and then add the Apple touch screen and interface. The combination maybe your 2010 laptop, designed for your pocket.